Archive for February, 2011

Monday, February 28, 2011

Laura Hillenbrand titled her new book well.  If anyone should be broken, it would be Louis Zamperini.  At age ninety-four (DOB January 26, 1917), the former athlete then WWII veteran and later pastoral staff member of the Hollywood Presbyterian Church has outlived most all his friends.  The author understood.  It would be difficult to imagine a human being more sorely tested; physically, psychologically and spiritually.  Most anyone else would surely be, well, broken.  His is an extraordinary story of “Survival, Resilience and Redemption.”  He remains to this day – unbroken.

I still remember back when Leslie Green recommended that I get my hands on the new book: Seabiscuit.  Reading ought to be a pleasure, and that’s what I found in Hillenbrand’s work.  Hers was the inspiring story of a racehorse; but it was also a history of the Great Depression.  Meticulously researched, written in an intensely engaging style it delivered rich dividends in the reading.  Leslie pegged it.  I couldn’t put it down.  Then came the movie.

So when Paul Sailhamer told me about Hillenbrand’s newest work, I grabbed my iPhone and ordered the free eBook sample right there at Panera Bread over my breakfast of egg and sausage sandwich.  I checked around the Internet on the ninety-four year old Italian who is Hillenbrand’s subject, and got a sense of why such a skilled author might choose to devote seven full years to chronicling his life.  The sample was the hook, and thanks to this new technology with which I hope never to live without, a couple of clicks later, I downloaded the unabridged audio version for my regular long trips up the Central Valley and back.  Hillenbrand soon had me mesmerized once more, and then sadly, the book came to an end.  I will wait impatiently for her next.

Laura Hillenbrand suffers a debilitating chronic fatigue syndrome.  By her own admission, the crushing condition leaves her in isolation, in a daily battle with depression.  Yet, she researches and writes with a passion that is, perhaps, so compelling because it is born out of her pain.  In interviews, she confesses that Louis’ journey of impossible odds, periods of torment, grinding despair, righteous rage, blinding fear and then unlikely rescue and finally life-altering redemption all reflect her own journey on a very different level.  She called the writing her experience of vicarious substitution.  As she recounted his life, she lived her own.  “He is an ebullient, effervescent man,” Hillenbrand said, “born to be defiant.”  No wonder this year that the day the new book was published, she handed him a fresh new autographed volume as her gift.  In return, Zamperini gave the author his Purple Heart.  “She deserves it more than me,” explained the aging warrior with a smile.

As a high school kid in Torrance, California during the depression years, the incorrigible Louis Zamperini made do.  His clever thievery went mostly undetected.   Meals would mysteriously turn up missing from the neighbor’s dinner table.  He would gobble the hot plate of food down behind the garage in a back alleyway.  Candy and cigarettes would disappear from the market shelves.  Tools from the neighbor’s garage.  If anyone attempted to catch the thief, in the chase Louis had a distinct advantage, and he knew it: speed.  Young Louis would outrun everybody, especially the victims of his petty theft.  The local police had his name; but many of them privately admired his cunning and mostly the wonder of his airborne stride.  But by the time his high school coach discovered the talent Louis couldn’t find a peer.  He left every competitor in exhausted angst, trailing far behind.  Crowds gathered from far and wide just to witness a Zamperini victory.

He was the fastest high school student in the nation.  It won him a spot on the 1936 Olympic Team.  He ran in Berlin as Adolph Hitler watched.

While most of the headlines involved Jesse Owens, Louis Zamperini was more than a footnote.  The case was strong: this nineteen year old would be the first human being to break what many believed to be an impossible barrier: the four minute mile.  They predicted that Zamperini would to it in the scheduled Tokyo games of 1940.  Pearl Harbor changed all that.  Louis went to war.

Be prepared for a gripping account of the horrors of war in the Pacific.  Brokaw calls it the Greatest Generation.  Zamperini would take issue.  He refuses to claim hero status.

The hell of war becomes Hillenbrand’s narrative, through the experience the young American from Torrance and a couple of years at USC.  The bombing missions over vast ocean spaces to find tiny targets on otherwise forgotten islands; the raging air battles between rickety heavy bombers and agile enemy fighter planes, sleek, fast and deadly; the crash in the remote shark-invested waters when just three of the eleven crew members survived (Louis and his comrade surviving a record setting forty seven days adrift until they were picked up by an enemy ship and transferred for two and a half years in Japanese POW camps); and the menacing commanding officer who became his nemesis nicknamed “The Bird” – all comprise a spellbinding narrative that kept me wanting more.  I won’t tell you the rest.

Except this: Zamperini suffers a debilitating, raging addiction to alcohol in the early post-war years.  Today, we call it Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  It nearly destroyed him.  The turning point came when in 1948, the Billy Graham team set up a tent on Hill and Washington in downtown Los Angeles.

Read Hillenbrand’s version of what happened next.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2011

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Delivering Dreams

Monday, February 21, 2011

We are not regular watchers, but last Sunday night, Carolyn and I tuned in.  I would put this series in the category of Reality TV.  Extreme Makeover – Home Edition this week became part of our family story.  That Sunday night, our son-in-law, Jamie Ostrander, made an ever-so-brief cameo appearance on network television.  ABC.  He played a key role in securing the funding for what turned out to be more than a re-make.  It was a total rebuild.

Joe and Cindy Hurston, on a whim, applied as contestants with a video that described their run-down house and their work.  Joe flies a twin engine, push-pull Cessna Skymaster and has dedicated the airplane to what he calls Air Mobile Disaster Relief Ministries.  He packs the old workhorse with water purifiers and flies them in whenever and wherever disaster strikes.  He follows hurricanes and floods, tornadoes and earthquakes, the most recent in Haiti where he was a first responder and continues to deliver portable devices to clean up the contamination and prevent disease.  His story got the attention of the program’s execs.  The Hurstons were selected.  The crew went to work from there.

The network team contacts all sorts of local businesses to accomplish the goal.  Among them, the project’s point man, was Jake Luhn, President of Lifestyle Homes in Melbourne, Florida.  Jake and Jamie have been pals since high school.  Jake picked up the phone and challenged Jamie, a financial advisor, to jump in and take on the challenge to raise the quarter of a million dollars in cash to complete the project.  The funds included the payoff of the Hurston’s mortgage.

Jake and Jamie hit the streets running.  There were rallies and gatherings of all sorts all around building the community momentum toward creating a dream home for the Hurstons.  They tore down the old two-story that had been severely damaged by a broken water main.  They started with a new slab.  Interior designers, landscape architects, all the trades came together with their best efforts.  The Hurston’s adopted children were interviewed and their rooms were designed accordingly. What we saw on Sunday night drew us in to the power of generosity and care.  It was a celebration of giving.

In addition, the old Skymaster got a facelift, too.  New paint.  New windows.  New interior, including a state of the art navigational system.  The old, seasoned pilot could barely speak.

So reality TV sometimes lives up to its name.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2011

Photos and Links to Extreme Makover

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Monday, February 14, 2011

When thirteen-year-old Bethany tossed her board into the water to catch the early morning waves at Tunnels Beach on Kauai, her best friend was right behind. Alana brought along her brother and her dad; four experienced surfers in all. The out-of-the-way beach is unattended; no lifeguards, no facilities – but a favorite for snorkelers and surfers alike. Steep mountains and giant boulders frame the two-mile long stretch of white sand near Ha’ena Beach Park on the north side of the island near Hanalei Bay. Offshore coral reefs guard deep-water caverns, home to colorful wildlife; a real life version of the worlds of Ariel (the Little Mermaid) and Nemo, too.

The waves swelled beautifully that morning in October of 2003. Bethany lived in these tropical waters since she could barely walk. She danced on those waves, sensing the rhythms and watching the swells until they formed into moving slopes when she would jump to her feet and ride. Her mastery of the rolling breakers seemed so easy, so effortless. She was one with her board, shooting the curl then snapping back and forth, up and down, playing in the white water, then paddle back to where another wave would invite her to ride again. She laughed with her friends over another great run. “Awesome!” she would squeal.

“Totally!” Alana replied.

At thirteen, Bethany already made a name for herself on the Hawaiian circuit. A natural competitor since age eight, she won several major contests along with her equally skilled friend Alana. Rip Curl picked the two of them as future champions. They signed the youngsters as their sponsor. The future looked bright.

Out beyond the reef, none of them noticed the fourteen-foot long tiger shark gliding, brooding just below the surface. As Bethany paddled back just beyond the reef to catch another wave at about 7:30 that October morning, she let her left arm hang at rest from the board as she looked back for the next swell. In one shocking moment, the shark attacked. With a quick jerk of his mighty tail, mouth gaping wide, the predator sprang up out of the shadows ingesting Bethany’s entire left arm and half her surfboard. With his powerful jaw, he bit down hard, his razor sharp teeth tearing away just below her shoulder and ripping a hole in the board. In a terrible instant, satisfied with his plunder, he swam away into the deep, a trail of red following him into the blue waters. Bethany screamed.

Alana’s dad, as the story was later told, saved her life. He whipped into action.

Because of the remote location of Tunnels Beach, extracting Bethany who bled profusely until a make-shift tourniquet was cinched up, then to the shore and out of the water, frantically up the trail to the back of the pickup and then off toward the small clinic in town all took considerable time and effort. They met the ambulance on the road, transferring Bethany to a portable gurney. In a curious coincidence, the only bed available was dedicated to her father for a knee surgery that same morning. When she arrived, sirens blaring, that surgery was postponed. Bethany got the bed. Later, doctors reported that she had lost more than sixty percent of her own blood supply. If the shark got another inch or two of her shoulder or if the transit took any more time, she would have certainly died. Later, locals caught the large shark, finding what remained of Bethany’s torn flesh.

Her family surrounded her bedside, along with the entire surfing community on Kauai and from around the world. But it was her church that led the prayer vigil. Bethany’s faith had been implanted some years before. It was about to blossom into a full-voiced message of hope, recovery and victory.

The stump that once was her arm healed rapidly. Bethany, a determined, exceptionally strong teenager, set her sights on rehabilitation. She adjusted, meeting life’s ordinary demands with a single arm; a single hand. Everything from getting dressed, doing her hair, making a sandwich, carrying her books – all of it – new. A state-of-the-art prosthesis provided by well wishers just got in the way. She discarded it. But hardest of all was getting back on the surfboard. She could not quit. She would not quit. Just thirty days after the shark tore away at her young body, she was back in the water. Paddling with one hand. Catching the wave. Getting up on her feet. Balancing across the face. All the old moves. All new.

Her parents watched through their tears.

Now Bethany is twenty years old. She competes against the best women in the world. In 2005, she took first place in the NSSA National Championships. The trophies fill a case displayed prominently in her home.

Sony’s faith-based film division, Affirm Films, took on the project. In April, they will release a full-length feature film dramatizing Bethany’s story. They call it SOUL SURFER. You will be hearing all about it. We viewed a pre-screening last week. Bethany is portrayed by AnniSophia Robb. Her parents: Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt. Her high school youth counselor is Carrie Underwood.

Bring your handkerchief. Your family. And your friends.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2011

Bethany Hamilton | Soul Surfer

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